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Monday, October 18, 2004

For all US progressives thinking of voting for someone other than Kerry

Maybe you’re fond of speaking of the “corporate duopoly” of American politics-- and I admit that the phrase does roll nicely off the tongue.  Or maybe you like to imagine that there’s a groundswell of hundreds of millions of people around the globe who believe that Kerry and Bush are just two different brands of detergent, even though actual polls show wide margins of support for Kerry in other nations.  Or maybe you just think it’s smart, cool, and alternative to dismiss both guys as “millionaires” or “Skull and Bones men,” because you know better than to buy into “the system.”

But your political stance really means one of two things.  Either:

(a) you are unaware of the extent to which the Bush crowd consists of kleptomaniac Contra-funding retreads, neo-segregationists associated with Confederate outlets like Southern Partisan magazine and the Council of Conservative Citizens, and Christian fundamentalist jihadists who believe themselves to be the instruments of God; or

(b) you are sublimely indifferent to the fact that the Bush crowd consists of kleptomaniac Contra-funding retreads, neo-segregationists associated with Confederate outlets like Southern Partisan magazine and the Council of Conservative Citizens, and Christian fundamentalist jihadists who believe themselves to be the instruments of God.

If you fall under (a), no problem!  We progressives will be happy to take you back.  Just spend the next two weeks catching up on world and US history since 2000-- we’ll wait right here.  If you fall under (b), please be sure to say so in all future correspondence.  It would especially help if you began all letters, emails, speeches, essays, books, and other “interventions” by saying, “I am a crusader for peace and social justice for all peoples, but in 2004 I could not be bothered to concern myself with the question of whether the world’s most powerful nation would continue to be run by evangelical Christian nutcases and far-right sociopaths.” That way, the rest of us will know just how seriously we’re supposed to take you.  Thanks!

Posted by Michael on 10/18 at 03:02 AM
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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Reality-based community news

There’s a weird new science-fiction piece by Ron Suskind in today’s New York Times Magazine.  In it, a Messianic madman takes over the United States in a disputed election after a hapless time traveller accidentally crushes a butterfly ballot while hunting for dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period.  Unable to distinguish Sweden from Switzerland (insisting, to one stunned congressman, that Sweden is “the neutral one” that “has no army"), the madman gradually consolidates his power, banishes all those who doubt or question him, and dispatches “senior advisers” to inform the populace that he can bend all of spacetime to his will.  Suskind writes:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend—but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Basically, it’s Alex Proyas’s film Dark City rewritten as a political thriller.  Derivative, but compelling.  The stuff about the madman’s crazed, cultish followers is good too, though a little overdone.  Throwing in a stock character who says “I just believe God controls everything, and God uses the president to keep evil down” and “God gave us this president to be the man to protect the nation at this time” is heavy-handed, I think.  But overall, as a depiction of an alternate universe inhabited by the insane, it’s pretty interesting stuff from an outlet that doesn’t usually publish much in the genre.

UPDATE:  Alert readers have directed me to Suskind’s most likely source of inspiration, and it’s not a film at all!  Well, apparently there are some SF writers out there with really lurid imaginations.  But those of us in the reality-based community can’t be expected to treat these outlandish fantasies as “serious” literature.

Posted by Michael on 10/17 at 07:50 AM
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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Quote of the day

Brought to my attention by Robert McRuer:

“If my child ever came to me and said, Mom, or if my husband’s daughters told me, ‘This is who we are and this is what I plan to do,’ then I would feel as a mother free to share my joy, my pride with all my friends, no matter what circumstances . . . or understanding of the culture, in the same way that if my son would say, ‘I want to marry this wonderful girl.’”

Here’s the context:

BOSTON, JUNE 30-- Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, drew tumultuous applause from a gathering of more than 200 gay delegates and their supporters Wednesday when she addressed a meeting of the Democratic National Convention’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender caucus.

“I know that I am welcomed and I am grateful to be welcomed,” she said, as caucus members and several dozen guests chanted “Teresa!  Teresa!”

“I’m grateful to you because you symbolize family,” she said. “You symbolize strength and hope. You symbolize resistance. And you symbolize tolerance. For that we are all thankful to you.”

OK, now that we’ve all been reminded what fundamental human decency sounds like, let’s get back to asking Boy George why he isn’t all that concerned about Osama bin Laden.

Posted by Michael on 10/16 at 04:28 AM
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Friday, October 15, 2004

Thing three

By quasi-popular demand, the first half of my 1997 review of Lynne Cheney’s attack on the National History Standards (originally published in the Nation, December 22, 1997):

In the waning months of 1994 Lynne Cheney initiated what would be her most successful campaign as a public intellectual-- the campaign to smear and discredit the National History Standards, an enterprise she had overseen as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for which, ironically, she had once taken credit.  From the platform provided her by the Wall Street Journal, Cheney charged that the standards were anti-Western, anti-Dead White Male, anti-free enterprise, and (surprise) politically correct.  “The general drift of the document becomes apparent,” wrote Cheney, “when one realizes that not a single one of the 31 standards mentions the Constitution. . . .  The authors tend to save their unqualified admiration for people, places and events that are politically correct.”

Cheney’s assault was a masterpiece of Beltway cynicism and attack-dog media tactics:  the complaint about the Constitution, for instance, is “true” only in the sense that the thirty-one main standards headings do not contain the word “Constitution,” even though Standard 3 called for students to understand “the institutions and practices of government created during the revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system.” Yet while Cheney appeared to take the high road, concluding that “we are a better people than the National Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it,” her overall strategy came right from the Gingrich GOPAC handbook on how to run a political campaign:  “‘go negative’ early,” “never back off,” and “use minor details to demonize the opposition.”

Cheney’s column appeared before the publication of the standards, at once assuming and assuring that few of the nation’s pundits and journalists would bother to read the standards themselves.  More crucially, Cheney followed up her column by activating the national network of right-wing hacks and flacks to make sure the low road was covered as well:  Within days Rush Limbaugh, prepped by Cheney via Newt Gingrich’s car phone, was tearing a history book to shreds on national television, blustering about how the Standards ignored George Washington and exclaiming, as he ripped pages by the handfuls, “this is what we’re doing to American history with this stupid new book, folks.” The standards, of course, were not a “book” at all, but this was the least of Rush’s inaccuracies.  Amazingly, the level of debate quickly spiralled downward from there, as apparatchiks like John Leo and Charles Krauthammer added still more hallucinatory charges to the indictment:  “Even more corrosive than the ethnic cheerleading and the denigration of American achievements is the [standards’] denigration of learning itself,” wrote Krauthammer, while Leo devoted part of his column to the creation of wholly imaginary statistics:  “by the allocation of the text, America today seems to be about 65 percent Indian.” By the end of 1994, then, it was open season on the standards:  No attack was too stupid or ill-informed for the national media to swallow or promulgate, not Limbaugh’s claim that the standards had been created by “a secret group at UCLA” (they were actually hashed out over three years of public debate by hundreds of historians and schoolteachers) or the Family Research Council’s full-page ad in the Washington Times, complaining that the standards “omit any references to the U.S. Apollo program” but “include ‘Soviet gains’ in space while highlighting America’s Challenger disaster.”

The story of the National History Standards is but one more version of a familiar scenario in the culture wars:  the Right orders a media blitzkrieg, and befuddled liberal and centrist academics, utterly unprepared for political controversy over sensible propositions such as “students should learn to interpret historical events rather than to simply memorize lists of dates and places,” blink in the glare of the television spotlights and mutter that they never expected their work to cause so much hubbub.  Stunned and chastened, the academics regroup, and within a few years publish books that respond to and analyze the blitzkrieg long after it’s faded from public memory.  History on Trial is just such a book.  Patiently and painstakingly, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn (all of whom were instrumental in crafting the standards) retell the story of how the movement for national standards began in the Bush Administration and how the various focus groups, task forces, professional associations and committees assembled by Cheney and Lamar Alexander went about the business of crafting a history curriculum for the nation’s students.  History on Trial then sets the debates of 1994-96 against the backdrop of the rest of the century-- giving us a thoroughly readable history of debates over the teaching of history in the twentieth-century United States.

Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn take us back to the beginnings of mass secondary education in the United States, when, thanks to the crisis in national self-definition precipitated by the Great War and massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, history teaching in the schools first became a politically freighted enterprise.  The book’s long view is, of course, altogether appropriate for an historicist understanding of the discipline of history, but it also affords us some particularly poignant moments of national self-recognition at the end of the century: In History on Trial, the right-wing attacks and book-burnings of the past often provide us with a distant mirror in which we can discern the spirits of Culture Wars Past, Culture Wars Present, and (if we dare) Culture Wars Yet to Come.

Contrast, for example, the Oregon legislature of the twenties, passing a statute that forbade the use of any history textbook that “speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic, or of the men who preserved the union, or which belittles or undervalues their work” with the U. S. Senate of 1995, censuring the National History Standards for flouting “a decent respect for . . . United States history, ideas, and institutions, to the increase of freedom and prosperity around the world.” Or contrast an 1874 textbook, Outlines of the World’s History, remarking that “it is of interest to know that the race to which we belong, the Aryan, has always played the leading part in the great drama of the world’s progress,” with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s extraordinary complaint that the standards did not perform enough ethnic cheerleading for “the West”:

nowhere in those standards . . . will you find any mention of the fact that it was the Western tradition that first produced the idea of individual freedom.  Nowhere will you find that it was in Christianity that the concept of individual freedom originated.  That slavery is evil is a Western idea.  Because the bias of the standards is so weighted against the United States and the West, you will find no acknowledgment of the fact that we have produced what no other country and tradition has.

Though Fox-Genovese does not speak of Aryans, she certainly conceives of history here as a great drama of the world’s progress with “Western” Christians doubly qualified for the lead role.  As Nash et al. point out, this passage (from yet another 1994 Wall Street Journal op-ed) clearly implies a “notion that national history standards should take on the task of ranking peoples and civilizations according to who came up with which idea first and who did not, an enterprise designed not to teach children the meaning of freedom, slavery or Christianity in world history but to rhapsodize over Western moral successes.” It is a curious notion for a serious historian to entertain-- but then again, as History on Trial convincingly shows, it is a notion American conservatives have championed before.

Indeed, the chief difference between the jingoistic right of the good old days and the jingoistic right of our fallen era seems to be that the latter has learned how to sound reasonable when appearing in mass media.  For example, prior to World War II, Harold Rugg’s widely used textbooks (such as A History of American Civilization, Economic and Social and Changing Civilizations in the Modern World) were attacked by the National Association of Manufacturers for their Communist overtones and their bias against free enterprise.  (Nash et al. note, “In fact, he wrote virtually nothing about the chronic industrial warfare that punctuated the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Rather he confined himself to remarks explaining that the rapid increase of worker wages between 1850 and 1900 tailed off and that by the late 1920s national income was very unevenly distributed.") We learn also that Rugg’s textbooks were publicly burned in Bradner, Ohio.  But most tellingly, we learn that the right was once quite forthright about its rightness; one of Rugg’s more vocal critics complained that his books sought “to give a child an unbiased viewpoint instead of teaching him real Americanism.  All the old histories taught my country right or wrong.  That’s the point of view we want our children to adopt.  We can’t afford to teach them to be unbiased and let them make up their own minds.”

Suffice it to say that Cheney and Company, having consulted many a media advisor, would never let such words escape their lips today.  Likewise, having learned that a good number of Americans find it unseemly for politicians to inveigh heatedly against contemporary scholarly attention to women and minorities, the right now insists instead that in documents like the standards, the nation’s great white men, and their great accomplishments and ideas, are being “denigrated"-- no doubt by being asked to share the stage with dark non-Aryan folk who did not play leading roles in the world’s progress.

I am sorry to add that I was subsequently taken to task for likening Elizabeth Fox-Genovese to old-school racists in the pages of The Baffler.  (Not that I keep track of these things!) And I am sorry to say that the phenomenon of the blinking, befuddled liberal is still with us.  Shame on all the media whores who “gasped” when Kerry said the word “lesbian.” Shame on Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution for claiming that Kerry’s reply to Schieffer’s question “crossed the line of political decorum” and demonstrated “such poor taste.” Shame on all you homophobes and your faux-liberal enablers.

When the GOP gets around to embracing the ideal of universal human rights, when it decides to start spreading “liberty and freedom” right here in the U.S. of A., let me know.  Until then, I’ll think of ‘em as the party of homophobes, hypocrites and reprobates.

Posted by Michael on 10/15 at 04:00 PM
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Thing two

Although Lynne Cheney and I have never met, we go way back.  I feel about her precisely the way I feel about Dinesh D’Souza:  that here we have a wild-eyed, far-right cultural radical whose ravings have been tolerated and enabled by a lethal combination of movement conservatives and woolly-headed, ignorant “liberals” who told me dozens of times in the early 1990s, “now, see here, young man, I don’t agree with Cheney and D’Souza politically, but you have to admit that this newfangled ‘deconstruction’ shit really will destroy the very fabric of all we hold dear.”

Until her daughter became the political subject du jour, Lynne Cheney was lately in the news for her most recent gesture of right-wing Stalinism, namely, destroying 300,000 copies of a Department of Education booklet because it did not conform with Cheneyan goodspeak:

WASHINGTON—The Education Department this summer destroyed more than 300,000 copies of a booklet designed for parents to help their children learn history after the office of Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife complained that it mentioned the National Standards for History, which she has long opposed. . . .

The booklet included several brief references to the National Standards for History, which were developed at UCLA in the mid-1990s with federal support. Created by scholars and educators to help school officials design better history courses, they are voluntary benchmarks, not mandatory requirements.

At the time, Lynne Cheney, the wife of now-Vice President Cheney, led a vociferous campaign complaining that the standards were not positive enough about America’s achievements and paid too little attention to figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Paul Revere and Thomas Edison. . . .

A new version of the booklet, the basis for the version that is being printed, is on the Education Department’s website. It has been edited to remove references to the standards.

For example, a clause in the foreword was removed that suggested President Bush supported instruction based on teaching standards that had been developed for various academic subjects.

Also missing from the department’s Internet version is a suggestion that parents ask whether their children’s curriculum incorporates the National Standards for History. An Internet address for the standards in a list of more than a dozen websites for parents was also removed, as well as a footnote elsewhere in the text that shows where to find more information about the history standards.

When The Times initially approached the Education Department to inquire about the booklets, the department issued a statement saying it had taken the unusual action because of “mistakes, including typos and incomplete information.”

Surely all the workers involved with the production of this “inaccurate” pamphlet have been sent to work in the oil-drilling fields of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Best not to ask, though.

See, to understand the Cheneys you have to understand the people to whom they play.  I’ve discussed Dick and his demeanor in an earlier post, but I haven’t said much about Lynne even though I consider her (strange as this may sound) the more odious of the two.  But when I tell you that Lynne has long cultivated the outrage of the batshit-crazy, far-right loons who believe that feminism entails (among other things) the teaching of witchcraft in the schools, you might say, as did my “liberal” interlocutors twelve years ago, “now, now, that’s a bit extreme of you, isn’t it?  Lynne Cheney is a respected public figure!  She would not go around stoking the outrage of batshit-crazy, far-right loons!  Really, the fact that you say such things, Michael, shows that you are out of the political mainstream!” At which point I would have to turn you over to Lynne herself.

From Telling the Truth:  Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense-- and What We Can Do About It, Other Than Writing Books with Bizarrely Long Subtitles, OK, I Made That Last Part Up (Simon and Schuster, 1995, pp. 40-42):

Not surprisingly witches and witchcraft are now making an appearance in school curricula. . . .  To some parents, teaching about witches and witchcraft is not merely a bizarre aspect of contemporary feminism, it constitutes religious instruction; and they have tried to stop it.  One target has been a book series for elementary school students entitled Impressions.  While the series contains many poems and stories to which no one would object, about two dozen selections (out of more than eight hundred) are about goblins and witches.  In one, a monster chases a child and tears off his head while other children cry, “MORE, MORE, MORE.” In another a witch denies her true nature--

now there’s an interesting question for a future Presidential debate!

and in doing so manages to turn children into frogs and their parents into pigs.  Horrified at what she has done, the witch corrects her mistake, earns the gratitude of those she has made human again, and regains her self-esteem.  She learns to accept herself as she really is-- a witch.

Parents complaining about the series have particularly objected to exercises in accompanying teacher’s guides that call for students to pretend to be sorcerers and witches and to cast spells and chant incantations.  In one exercise, students sit in a circle, pass a candle, and try to transport themselves to distant lands by chanting to “candles bright” and “cats black.” In another, they attend a wizard’s meeting in order to exchange spells and stories of magic they have performed. . . .

The concerned parents have not only lost the legal battle, but also the public relations fight, thanks in large part to People for the American Way

Boo!  Hiss!  May they rot in Hellfire for encouraging pagan superstitions!

a liberal organization that consistently portrays them as zealots who not only want to censor what children read

whoops!  what was that about censoring what children read, Lynne?

but bring down the public school system.  As law professor Stephen Carter of Yale University has noted, it has become common in our culture to perceive parents who complain about school curricula on religious grounds as “backward, irrational, illiberal fanatics.”

And now comes the nut sentence, in various senses of that term:

But it is important to place complaints such as those made about the Impressions series in a larger context and ask, for example, why it is permissible to have “isolated instances” of witchcraft practiced in the school when not a single instance of organized prayer is permitted.

OK, got that?  One reason our culture and our country have stopped making sense is that the public schools are teaching witchcraft and wizardry but banning good Christian prayer.  And, insult upon injury, the parents who protest against this are considered fanatics!

Lynne’s outrage over Kerry’s awkward but ultimately innocuous acknowledgement of Mary Cheney’s sexuality has to be seen in this context, I think.  Lynne, like George Bush himself, is a mainstream political figure who spends a good deal of her time sending those coded messages to the “base"-- the kind of people who visit Creationist theme parks and spend their spare time trying to get the Harry Potter books yanked from the school library bookshelves.  And what do you think that “base” thinks about Mary Cheney?  Base thoughts, no doubt.

Personally, I don’t believe that the Cheneys are ashamed of their daughter Mary.  Not for a moment.  I think Dick’s acknowledgement of John Edwards’ praise last week was sincere, whereas his stance as a “pretty angry father” today is sheer political opportunism.  But I do know very well that among the political constituencies they’ve cultivated over the years-- the people who think of their local P.S. 32 as a den of secularist evil or as Hogwarts in disguise-- gay and lesbian Americans are considered the enemy.  Nothing-- not even Creationism-- rallies those people like the notion that liberals will ban their Bibles and force them to embrace homosexual couples.  When you’re playing to that crowd, people (as some Republican candidates are doing right this very minute), your gay daughter really is a political liability, sad to say.

And that’s why Lynne is out for blood on this one.  Not that she drinks it herself or chants to “cats black,” mind you!

My Nation review of Lynne’s anti-National History Standards charade is here, if you’re interested.

UPDATE:  This post is now cross-posted at The American Street, as well.

Posted by Michael on 10/15 at 08:20 AM
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Thing one

If I were running for an office of some kind-- you know, in a hypothetical kind of way-- and my opponent mentioned the fact that I have a child with Down syndrome and that I love him, I’d respond by saying something like “I appreciate that.” But this much I know-- I would not begin a national mini-campaign in which I declare myself to be a “pretty angry father” and in which my wife denounces my opponent’s remark as a “cheap and tawdry political trick.”

Thing two later today.

Posted by Michael on 10/15 at 06:40 AM
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